San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Anglers at Isla Calero: The only conflict was color

I lived 373 steps away from the first Hooters restaurant, which opened on April Fools’ Day almost three decades ago in Clearwater, Florida. I don’t know what possessed me to count those steps on the way home one night, and I doubt seriously if I covered them in a straight line.

I quickly became friends with two of the owners, Lynn Stewart and Ed Droste. The Hooters chain has since grown to almost 500 restaurants in 27 countries, including two in the San José area. The only reason I tell you this is because I organized the first Hooters Costa Rica Fishing Tournament in March 1991, which also happens to be one of the greatest days of fishing I’ve experienced in my lifetime.

The memory of this trip was brought to the surface again recently as I began reading articles and watching news clips about the conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over ownership of Isla Calero. The second day of the Hooters tournament took place in a lagoon about 10 minutes from that island.

The tournament was based out of Archie Fields’ Río Colorado Lodge in Barra del Colorado on the northern Caribbean coast, and the participants were Tampa Bay area businessmen, athletes and magazine writers. I drew Mike Holliday of Florida Sportsman magazine as a fishing partner.

Fields, who was always known for putting on the dog for guests, told us that about an hour or so from the lodge was a lagoon in Nicaragua that the locals reported was full of tarpon. He said the ride up the jungle rivers of Río Colorado and Río San Juan was spectacular, and if the local gossip was true, we would have a day of tarpon fishing we would never forget. We planned the trip for early the next morning.

When we left Río Colorado Lodge at daybreak, there was still a morning chill of mountain air that had blown in overnight. By the time we reached Greytown, Nicaragua, the sun had risen enough in the sky to make the jungle hot and humid.

Greytown is a place with amazing history. Spanish settlers first landed there on June 24, 1539, and named it San Juan del Norte after Saint John the Baptist. In the early 1700s, the village was captured by Miskito Indians, and by 1848 the town was under British rule and renamed Greytown. Today, the village is still known by both those names, and by its modern name, San Juan de Nicaragua.

After a quick check by Nicaraguan authorities, we rounded the corner and entered the lagoon. It was stunning. Dense green jungle and an azure sky reflected on the smooth surface. As we glided across that mirror, we noticed an old dredge off to the right, and to the left was a half-submerged steamboat. Both were left over from the boom days of Greytown in the 1860s, when Cornelius Vanderbilt’s transit company brought thousands of people each month from New York and New Orleans, passed them down the San Juan River, through Lake Nicaragua and up to San Francisco for the California Gold Rush. A small cemetery remains in the jungle at Greytown as a reminder of the many who did not last the voyage.

The only thing that moved the slick surface that day was rolling tarpon. I had never fished for tarpon in freshwater before, and it was amazing to see 100-pound fish in an area that appeared to be home to something in the line of a largemouth bass. One after another, tarpon knifed through the surface.

Holliday hooked a fish on his first cast. The tarpon inhaled his red-and-white Mirr-Olure almost as soon as it hit the water. When the fish took to the sky, its rattling gills echoed through the jungle bush. If you have never heard the gills of a jumping tarpon, it will send a chill down your spine and a signal to the memory part of your brain that is never forgotten.

We ended up hooking 60 tarpon that day in the lagoon, landing and releasing 12. At one point I had an 80-pound fish on the line that had jumped four times. On the fifth jump, the fish was only 50 pounds. The bigger fish had spit the hook, and a smaller one swallowed the lure so fast I never realized I had lost the first fish. Even with all those tarpon, we did not win the tournament.

In 2003, Costa Rican doctor Alfredo López opened the doors of Río Indio Lodge on the same lagoon, after two and a half years of construction (TT, Nov. 19, 2010). The first time I visited it, I could not imagine how he could build such a beautiful place in such a remote location. Anglers are still catching tarpon right in front of his lodge.

Even with the dispute between the two countries over Isla Calero, Río Indio is passing lots of tourists through its door. Most ecotourists are entering through Managua, but the fishing crowd is still entering by boat through Costa Rica, which is much faster, until the airport under construction at Greytown is finished.

As I replay that day over and over again in my memory, I think of all the political chess being played these days over that area. I remember the only conflict we had that day was in choosing a lure: Should it be red and white or chartreuse?

Skippers, operators and anglers are invited to e-mail fishing reports by Wednesday of each week to or, or call in reports to Dan Wise at 8816-2882. To post reports and photos on The Tico Times’ online fishing forum, go to

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